Tuesday 21 November 2017

Biotechnology boldly goes to the cutting edge of our new frontier

Biotech is the new digital - and Indie Bio is making a play for Cork to be the global hub

Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao of Indie Bio company Biocellection. Photo: Tomas Tyner
Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao of Indie Bio company Biocellection. Photo: Tomas Tyner

Bill Liao

When something gets 10 million times cheaper in 12 years, it's worth taking notice.

In the digital space our progress has been roughly measured against Moore's Law - named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who predicted integrated chip performance would double every 18 months or so.

In the field of biotechnology things have been moving even faster than that. A useful proxy for the dramatic increase in our power in the field is the drop in costs of sequencing the genome of a complex organism.

In the year 2003 the human genome project was completed at a cost of $2.7bn. Today you can go to 23 and me and get a useful sequencing of your own genome for $260

Across the world, biotech is being democratised by falling costs as more and more researchers, inventors and entrepreneurs realise that they can afford to create new products using the tried and true methods of lean start-up - rather than having to apply for grant funding or to go work in big pharmaceutical companies.

That's why SOSventures created Indie Bio: to attract to Cork the next wave of these lean start-ups operating at the cutting edge of computing and biology.

This new form of technology is called synthetic biology and it is where biology and programming meet. It is now possible to actually write code in a language called Python, which is used for web development, and then they compile it in DNA and upload it to cells and give them a new purpose.

This is where Indie Bio steps in. Our programmes support companies or people with early-stage concepts, helping get them to a point where they can establish viable and sustainable businesses.

We can now safely say that the effect that synthetic biology will have on biotech will be comparable to the impact of the microcontroller has had on computing.

The great innovators of the computer industry and the pioneers of that industry were hobbyists, who brought technology to the real world, away from the corporations and academia. They worked away on their own, often in spare bedrooms, garages and even at the kitchen table.

It is a very exciting time - and the Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerbergs or Julia Hartzs of the indie biotech movement is yet to emerge.

But in time they will - just like their predecessors in computing.

Biotech is the new digital and the unicorns and dragons are coming. Anyone who does not see this is going to be left flat-footed. The size of the market that Indie Bio companies are operating in is expected to grow eight-fold over the next number of years to a global industry worth over $16bn.

Investors in traditional tech need to look around and see the opportunities that are already springing up in the biotech sector. Past promises of biotech have often been stymied by long delivery times, blow-out costs, heavy regulation and opaque risk levels.

All this is changing immensely fast.

Four years ago, as part of SOSventures, I founded our biotech practice with a vision of catching this enormous wave. With the support and courage of Sean O'Sullivan and the team we have now nearly 30 companies either graduated or in the EU and US Indie Bio accelerator programs.

The doors of our accelerators are open to teams from around the world, teams that are carefully selected to create powerful batches of collaboration and create amazing, world- changing lean biotech solutions for previously intractable problems.

The programs are not just open to teams, we welcome with open arms industry partners and investors. Such is the deal flow being created that there are more than enough amazing opportunities to share. In fact SOSventures do not even need to lead the seed rounds in many instances, such is the interest in the companies operating in the Indie Bio programmes.

For the established industry, lean start-ups represent a new life blood of potential acquisitions, both for talent and for innovations. This is a perfect mirroring of what happens in the digital world and makes good sense to those forward thinking enough to take advantage of it.

DNA is actually digital and we now have the power to code in DNA in a way that rivals the power of our other computing technologies. The ability to produce powerful new tools for the betterment of humanity is already here and it's time to work together to see an incredibly bright future for this technology and the centres of excellent that embrace the lean, indie biotech approach.

SOSventures located this global programme in Cork - and I've been asked repeatedly, 'Why Ireland, Bill?' and 'Why Cork?'

Ireland and Cork have outstanding resources for life sciences and in the years ahead the new wave of synthetic biology is going to revolutionise industries across every known sector. SOSventures selected Cork as a location and UCC as a partner, because we firmly believe that by using our start-up accelerator methodology, we can make Cork (and, by extension, Ireland) the epicentre of the synthetic biology universe.

The current group of companies demonstrate the international dimension of the innovators we need to attract to Ireland. There are companies from Canada, USA, Austria, France and Ireland who are part of a global wave of innovation sweeping the world of synthetic biology. We can find 14 of the top 15 pharma and biotech companies on the planet with operations in Cork, which is recognised as one of the top biotech hubs in Europe.

Synthetic biology is a trans-disciplinary field, existing at the intersection of science, technology and engineering, but it's crucial that Indie Bio works with industry and academic partners. All the companies (Ageria, Aranex Biotech, BioCellection, Efflorus, GlonDX, PiLi, Prospective Research, Saphium, and Sothic Bioscience) received investment from Indie Bio and wet lab space in UCC, coupled with world-class mentors, all aiming to bring their ideas to investment stage.

If we get this right, we can make Cork the world leader in synthetic biology. Then we will see what happens when you fuse talent and technology with the indigenous pharma and biotech ecosystem. Meanwhile jobs are created, while some of the world's brightest work in solving some of the biggest challenges that we face in the world today.

Bill Liao is a European venture partner for SOSventures and founder of Indie Bio

Sunday Indo Business

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